The protests triggered by the recent murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have produced widespread demands to “defund the police.” Those demands don’t come out of nowhere.
I fully accept the need for radical changes in policing—that’s what “defund” appears to imply—if American cities are ever to have law enforcement agencies that are effective, humane, and themselves law-abiding.
What I can’t fathom is why a similar logic doesn’t apply to the armed forces that we employ to police huge chunks of the world beyond our borders. If Americans have reason to question the nation’s increasingly militarized approach to law enforcement, then shouldn’t they have equal reason to question this country’s thoroughly militarized approach to statecraft?
Consider this: on an annual basis, police officers in the United States kill approximately 1,000 Americans, with Blacks two-and-a-half times more likely than Whites to be victimized. Those are appalling figures, indicative of basic policy gone fundamentally awry. So, the outpouring of protest over the police and demands for change are understandable and justified.
Still, the question must be asked: Why have the nation’s post-9/11 wars not prompted similar expressions of outrage? The unjustified killing of Black Americans rightly finds thousands upon thousands of protesters flooding the streets of major cities.
Yet the loss of thousands of American soldiers and the physical and psychological wounds sustained by tens of thousands more in foolhardy wars elicits, at best, shrugs. Throw in the hundreds of thousands of non-American lives taken in those military campaigns and the trillions of taxpayer dollars they have consumed and you have a catastrophe that easily exceeds in scale the myriad race-related protests and riots that have roiled American cities in the recent past.
With their eyes fixed on elections that are now just months away, politicians of all stripes spare no effort to show that they “get it” on the issue of race and policing. Race may well play a large role in determining who wins the White House this November and which party controls Congress. It should.
Yet while the election’s final outcome may be uncertain, this much is not: neither the American propensity for war, nor the bloated size of the Pentagon budget, nor the dubious habit of maintaining a sprawling network of military bases across much of the planet will receive serious scrutiny during the political season now underway. Militarism will escape unscathed.
At Riverside Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” So, it unquestionably remains, perpetrating immeasurably more violence than any other great power and with remarkably little to show in return. Why, then, except on the easily ignored fringes of American politics, are there no demands to “defund” the Pentagon?
King considered the Vietnam War an abomination. At that time, more than a few Americans agreed with him and vigorously demonstrated against the conflict’s continuation. That today’s demonstrators have seemingly chosen to file away our post-9/11 military misadventures under the heading of regrettable but forgettable is itself an abomination. While their sensitivity to racism is admirable, their indifference to war is nothing short of disheartening.
In 1967, Dr. King warned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” During the intervening decades, his charge has lost none of its sting or aptness.
Andrew Bacevich is an author and essayist.